Hounds Of Love

Australia (2016) Dir. Ben Young

Never talk to strangers. And certainly never accept a lift from one. These are the basic rules our parents instil in us from a very early age so why do kids always ignore them? For his feature film debut, Aussie director Ben Young presents a hard hitting and nightmarish example of why we should always listen to our parents’ sagacious advice.

Christmas 1987 and teenager Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings) divides her home life between her divorced parents Trevor (Damian De Montemas) and Maggie (Susie Porter). Currently staying with her mother in Perth, an argument over her homework leads to Vicki sneaking out to attend a party against Maggie’s expressed forbiddance.

A pleasant couple John (Stephen Curry) and Evie White (Emma Booth) driving past stop and offer Vicki a lift, diverting to their house to sell her some weed for the party. Evie offers Vicki a drink to get her in the party mood which unbeknownst to Vicki has been spiked – the first sign of John and Evie’s true motives for picking her up.

It might not seem like it but Aussie cinema has been around a while, it’s just like most international markets, a lot of their output doesn’t always make it across to the Northern Hemisphere. In the past couple of years, horror films have proven the most fertile export from Oz, with The Babadook being the most prominent flag bearer for the genre.

This chilling debut is likely to eclipse The Babadook in getting under people’s skin and causing sleepless nights but for very different reasons. Hounds Of Love (no relation the Kate Bush album) is based in reality, one many a parent dreads being caught up in, although not directly based on any singular true story but testimonies from abduction survivors consulted during the research process.

As is often the case, the true horror comes from the plausibility of the scenario and not through any supernatural influence or scenes of gratuitous violence, the former giving way to psychological terror, the latter supplanted with sexual abuse. Young keeps this last element away from the viewer leaving it to Vicki’s tortured screams behind closed doors to delineate exactly what is going on.

One thing Young doesn’t give away with any real clarity is why John and Evie do this, especially as the pre-credits opening scene quickly informs us this is a regular activity for them. Suggestion crop up along the way, like John being in debt to a thug named Gary (Fletcher Humphrys) but when Evie forces Vicki to write a note to her mother, a ransom is curiously never mentioned.

More likely to be the root of this is a surreptitious suggestion that the brutish John might be a paedophile and with Evie under his spell, this is a way for him to get two kicks in one go. Adding further intrigue, Evie reveals to Vicki she has two children with an ex she is trying to get access to but the father won’t allow it; a passing remark from John about Evie’s daughter (“You still think that was me?”) implies many disturbing hypothesis.

Elsewhere, Maggie and Trevor are losing their minds with worry but the police are shrugging their shoulders, insisting Vicki is like every other teenage runaway and she’ll be back by the weekend. This would be convincing if the police station walls weren’t plastered with posters of missing girls; worst still, a jobsworth desk office refuses to act on a vital clue in Vicki’s note because it wouldn’t be following procedure.

Setting the story in 1987 is a clever tact to increase the tension and helplessness of Vicki’s plight. It is certainly effective as the cruel captors can effectively disappear off the grid themselves whilst keeping Vicki out of sight too, something far more difficult to achieve in the modern age of readily accessible global communication. Also the location of suburban has a remote and unassuming veneer to it for added unease.

The psychological dissonance is two-fold – first there is mental control John appears to have over Evie which extends to Vicki as his captive, but as seen with Gary, he is your typical bully caught in a chain of his insecurity. The second is with Evie and her desire to be a mum to her kids, opening a very slight gateway to sympathising with Vicki and becoming jealous of what she perceives as her appeal to John.

Evie is therefore the most fascinating character in this film and it is no coincidence that Emma Booth’s portrayal of her is Oscar worthy (if the Oscar’s weren’t so xenophobic). Not to mention the remarkable physical transformation Booth undergoes to become Evie, the emotional unrest and the nuances of her protean personality she masterfully conveys makes her more dangerous than John, in that she could and should put a stop to this but crumbles under pressure.

Stephen Curry shows no redeeming features as John, a slimy, loathsome sociopath with a solipsistic ego; his dyspeptic moods giving way to a calm and grotesque sexual predator is just one side of his cold manipulative personality. A little more conventional but still haunting is Susie Porter as Maggie, especially in the final act, but her role feels like a token symbol of hope than a collateral victim of this ordeal.

Young’s direction shows immense promise, from the eerie slow motion tableaux of the opening to the pacey moments of suspense. Wisely leaving most of the horror to our imagination, we are in Young’s hands throughout; like Vicki, we leave if he allows us to. He even goes as far as to defile a pop classic in Nights In White Satin as the soundtrack to Vicki’s torment.

If you dare watch Hounds Of Love, you’ll experience two things – a powerfully amoral and efficiently upsetting work from a promising new voice in cinema; and if you have children, you will never let them out of your sight until they are forty!